On a cold, rain-drenched Halloween night, there may have been any number of costumed characters running around. But in one location, more than 20,000 folks were simply Garth Brooks fans.
Making his first concert appearance in Lexington in 16 years, Brooks played his first of four concerts at Rupp Arena Friday night and brought a two-hour set of what have now become his trademarks: A relatable stage persona, boundless energy and a classic catalog of country hits that were some of the first in the genre to hit pop paydirt. It was a show that carried high expectations, only to be met with a performer that delivered on all of them.
The opening involved a bit of theatrics, with his stage and his synonymous "g" logo on a giant cube of high-def screens experiencing technical difficulties. After an ominous countdown, Brooks practically appeared out of thin air, donning a black cowboy hat and industrial-sized headset mic to bust into the title track from his upcoming album Man Against Machine. The rest of the show's production was modest by comparison, with the electricity primarily coming from Brooks himself, his ace nine-piece band and a ravenous crowd that seemed to overwhelm and re-energize him with applause between every song.
Because Brooks is, deep down, a people-pleaser, the audience got to hear almost every one of his iconic songs that showcased every shade of his sound as an artist. There were the "cowboy tunes" (The Beaches of Cheyenne, Papa Loved Mama), his Jimmy Buffet-esque party favors (Two Pina Coladas), his often-touching, James-Taylor-in-boots-and-belt-buckle ballads (The River, Unanswered Prayers), his very first hit single (1989's I'm Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)) and The Thunder Rolls, the kind of dramatic number only he could conceivably write and pull off.
Brooks' personality and antics on stage came close to upstaging his own music. He was a humble everyman, cracking jokes, showing genuine appreciation and talking about how Rupp Arena is one of his top five places to play. During his songs, at least the more up-tempo numbers, he was often behaving like a man possessed, showering himself and the first few rows of the crowd with water bottles, running across the stage and climbing the sphere-shaped cage that housed his long-time drummer.
About two-thirds through his set, he was joined on stage by someone who ticket-holders may have thought would be the opening act. Trisha Yearwood, Brooks' wife and a prestigious country presence in her own right, sang with him on their duet In Another's Eyes and his band accompanied her for a handful of songs that included hits like XXXs and OOOs (An American Girl), She's In Love With the Boy and the ballad How Do I Live?, which showcased Yearwood's ability to still hit the big notes.
If the first portion of Brooks' set was everything, when he took the stage again, he brought the kitchen sink. He amped up the passion and growl of his considerable vocals on the Billy Joel cover Shameless and followed it with the knee-slapping jubilee of Callin' Baton Rouge, which he revealed was his hands-down favorite song to perform live. He took some time to catch a breather and introduce his bandmates, two of whom have Kentucky ties that got an appropriately loud response. He even brought one stage production manager (and Bluegrass native) up to take a bow, who then started an impromptu C-A-T-S chant with the crowd.
Brooks' last two offerings were two of his most beloved: Friends in Low Places followed by a soft closer and his "favorite Garth Brooks song," The Dance. Technically, Brooks' current tour and return to music after more than a decade is being billed as a comeback. But based on this show and the adulation he received, it feels like he's just sitting back in a throne he never really relinquished.
Editor's note: This review was updated to correct two Trisha Yearwood song titles.